Enumclaw going public with talks of stormwater utility

Enumclaw doesn’t have one but Buckley does. So does Bonney Lake, Sumner, Orting and a handful of other neighboring communities. Even Wilkeson has a small one.

The topic at hand is a stormwater utility, a notion that has floated about Enumclaw City Hall for years. Now, it’s back and appears to be gaining momentum.

A stormwater utility is not unique, a common part of most municipal governments. Nor is the notion of dealing seriously with stormwater unusual; the federal Clean Water Act has, for decades, worked to keep communities accountable.

But Enumclaw has been reluctant to act on a topic that adds another layer of cost to individual homeowners and, to a greater extent, much of the business community.

But the possible formation of a stormwater utility was part of Mayor Liz Reynolds’ 2017 budget. And, stormwater talks dominated the May 22 meeting of the Enumclaw City Council, where Public Works Director Jeff Lincoln led a detailed discussion.

The end result? The council agreed that public participation is crucial to the process and directed city administration to put together an open house, where questions can be asked and concerns raised.

WHAT IS A STORMWATER UTILITY?

Essentially, a stormwater utility exists to direct water – mostly in the form of rainfall – where it’s supposed to go. In Enumclaw’s case, stormwater eventually makes its way to either the White River to the south or the Green River to the north. Along the way, stormwater should be cleansed, as much as possible, of any contaminants.

The utility typically is treated just like any other – gas, sewer or solid waste, for example. In Enumclaw, costs associated with a new utility would most likely be billed along with other utilities.

Just because Enumclaw lacks a stormwater utility, doesn’t mean there aren’t rules to follow. Operating under a Western Washington Municipal Stormwater Permit, the city is presently charged with meeting requirements including the detection of illicit discharge, controlling runoff from developments and monitoring nearby creeks, to name a few.

Until 2015, the city engineer was tasked with handling stormwater efforts. But, in August of that year, Enumclaw was told it was not in compliance with state regulations. As a result, a city employee is now assigned exclusively to stormwater issues.

To help with stormwater runoff, the city now maintains an inventory of 22 detention ponds, more than 18 miles of drainage ditches and approximately 3,000 catch basins. As part of the effort to keep water clean before it runs into ditches or seeps into the ground, street sweeping aims to clear away possible contaminants.

The existing system might work most places, but the city has a shopping list of trouble spots.

A section of Jewell Street is perhaps the best example, sometimes home to a foot of standing water. Lincoln reported Jewell Street becomes a flood zone “with every major storm event.”

The same can be true in the vicinity of Rainier Avenue and Cedar Street. The city typically deals with the problem by putting up “Water Over Roadway” signs, Lincoln said. Commerce Street at Roosevelt Avenue has it’s problems, too.

WHAT ABOUT THE FUNDING?

Currently, stormwater efforts are paid through the city’s Street Fund, subsidized by the General Fund. For 2017, stormwater abatement will cost the city an estimated $415,000. That includes paying the equivalent of 2.2 full-time employees, Lincoln said; that includes the one permanent employee, plus time spent on wastewater efforts by seven other city workers.

As most city functions are supported through the General Fund, they all suffer a bit due to the mandated stormwater requirements, Lincoln said.

And, with that, he moved into a discussion of an “alternate funding strategy” – creating a new utility that deals solely with stormwater and has an identified funding source.

As discussed, Enumclaw’s new utility would add monthly charges for those with impervious surfaces like driveways and parking lots – anything that causes water to run off the property instead of leaching into the soil.

A rate analysis has been done and arrived at a monthly cost of $4.38 per single-family home. Businesses would pay $4.38 for every 3,200 square feet of impervious surface.

How does that compare to stormwater fees assessed by neighboring communities? Lincoln said Bonney Lake charges $14 per household, Puyallup charges $10 and, in Auburn, the rate is nearly $20 monthly. The monthly rate is more than $21 in Buckley, $22 in Orting and $14.58 in Sumner.

The discussion turned to the distribution of stormwater costs when Lincoln noted that single-family homes now contribute 64 percent of the money used on stormwater efforts; commercial and industrial lands pay about 23 percent of the cost and multi-family buildings make up the rest.

If equity is a goal, Lincoln said, the city is now missing its mark. Those owning single-family homes are paying too high a price.

With a stormwater utility in place, Lincoln said, single-family homes would foot about 40 percent of the bill, while commercial and industrial interests would pay about 35 percent.

WHERE DOES THE CITY GO FROM HERE?

Enumclaw currently operates under a permit that expires July 31, 2018. Lincoln offered his belief that new regulations will be more demanding.

“We are under a public microscope,” he told the council. “We are being watched and we are being evaluated by government regulators, our citizens and people that pass by.”

Adding to the stormwater mix, he said, is accelerated housing growth in the area, growing issues with drainage and an aging city infrastructure. Plus, everything gets more expensive over time and stormwater abatement is no different, Lincoln said.

“Jewell Street could have been solved 10 or 12 years ago for $100,000,” he told the council, having already noted that the solution currently will cost perhaps three times that amount.

Creating a stormwater utility would provide a financial means to address some of Enumclaw’s problems, but the money would come directly from the pockets or homeowners and businesses, always a delicate balancing act.

“This affects a lot of people and I’d like to hear what our constituents want to know,” Councilwoman Juanita Carstens said, prompting talk of an open house.

Reynolds was in agreement, citing the need for education and input. In the end, if the public doesn’t support formation of a new utility, “at least they have the education,” she said.

In closing, the mayor said, “this issue is here and it’s here to stay.”